A young man enters his father's study to claim a monthly allowance. His father obliges, but the son presses for more, citing a debt at school he must pay. The father dismisses him and an appeal to his mother fails. This leads him to try to pawn his watch to a friend, who instead gives him a forged 500-franc note. After the trade, the youth lingers to peruse an album of nude art.
The boys take the counterfeit to a photo shop and change it on the pretext of buying a picture frame. When the store co-manager finds out, he scolds his partner for her lack of wariness. She chides him in return for having accepted two forged notes the previous week. He then vows to pass off all the forged notes in their possession at the next opportunity, which arises when a gas man, Yvon, comes in with a bill.
Yvon tries to pay a restaurant tab with the forged notes, but the waiter recognizes them as counterfeit. Yvon is arrested, at the trial the photo shop people lie. Yvon avoids jail time; however, he loses his job. Needing money, he acts as the get-away car driver for a friend's bank robbery. The robbery is foiled by police, and Yvon is arrested. He is sentenced to prison for three years. While in prison, his daughter dies and his wife writes to him that she is leaving him to start a new life. He tries to commit suicide but survives.
When released from prison, Yvon has nothing. Right away, he murders hotel keepers and robs their till. He then is taken in by a kind woman over the objection of her father. Some time passes, and one night Yvon kills everyone in the house with an axe. He goes to a restaurant, confesses to a police officer, and is arrested.
Bresson first began work on the film's script in 1977. It is based on Leo Tolstoy's The Forged Coupon. Bresson later said that it was the film "with which I am most satisfied—or at least it is the one where I found the most surprises when it was complete—things I had not expected."
The film was released in France on 18 May 1983 through MK2 Diffusion.
Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, "that Robert Bresson [...] is still one of the most rigorous and talented film makers of the world is evident with the appearance of his beautiful, astringent new film, L'Argent. [...The film] would stand up to Marxist analysis, yet it's anything but Marxist in outlook. It's far too poetic – too interested in the mysteries of the spirit."
Tom Milne found L′Argent to be "unmistakably a masterpiece", noting "the extraordinary apotheosis of the final sequence," and the "breathless wonderment in the last shot of onlookers frozen as they gaze into the empty room from which all evidence of crime has gone."
Bresson received the Director's Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, tied with Andrei Tarkovsky for Nostalghia. L'Argent was nominated for Best Sound at the César Awards 1984. It won the 1984 National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director.